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6 Reasoning, measuring, forecasting and modelling in strategic management

6 Reasoning, measuring, forecasting and modelling in strategic management

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Chapter 16  Different modes of articulating patterns of interaction emerging across organisations   443

of bounded rationality was found to be an idealisation of reason, because in practice

any ­reasoning process is highly conditioned by the interpretive frameworks in terms

of which people have no option but to think about the situations in which they

have to choose actions. As a result of their interpretive frameworks, people would

inevitably ignore some features of the situation and reach biased views about the

situation, often leading them to inertia and drift. Then, psychodynamic perspectives

point to the role of unconscious, irrational processes in determining what people do

and how this can obstruct rationality. The limitations of objective reasoning processes were even further stressed by those who argued that people together enact:

that is, actively select and create their world of experience. Social constructionists

argued that people create the world of their experience in language. Postmodernism

takes this problematising of objective reasoning a step further in arguing that there

are as many views of the world as there are people and therefore there is no grand

narrative, no theory that can claim to be fundamental in any sense. Taken to its

extreme this leads to a view in which there is no reality out there, only our stories,

and one story is as good as another.

The theory of complex responsive processes continues with this critique of the

strategy process as one of technical rationality, but stops short of postmodernism in

arguing for a way of understanding that does, in a sense, offer a grand narrative and

makes fundamental claims about human relating. It argues that all human relating

is fundamentally conversational and that conversation is, and always was, the conversation of gestures. It argues that all human relating is, and always was, power

relating and it argues that the basis of patterns of power relations is ideological. It

argues that all human experience has a narrative structure and that the criteria for

the choices people make within the ongoing narrative of experience are based on the

evaluative criteria of ideology. It argues that primary experience and the first- and

second-order abstractions which we are capable of making from it are in paradoxical relationship and are thus both important in researching and understanding social

life. In making these claims, the theory of complex responsive process remains firmly

within one tradition of modernism. However, unlike the form of modernism that

we have been calling the dominant discourse, the theory of complex responsive processes remains in the minority, or critical stream of modernism, particularly based

on pragmatism, which thinks that there are limits to, and dangers in taking up the

methods and insights of the natural sciences and ‘applying’ them directly to social

life as though the natural world and the social world are one and the same. The

theory of complex responsive processes problematises human reason much as the

debate in the dominant discourse does, even taking this problematisation a step further in emphasising the fundamentally uncertain and perpetually constructed nature

of human futures and in emphasising the fundamental interdependence of human


However, no matter how problematic, the human capacity for reasoning remains

of great importance and has enormous consequences. The previous chapters in this

part have not mentioned reasoning processes much, simply because these chapters

have been concerned with understanding the basic nature of human agency and

human action of which reasoning is only one aspect. In their communicative interaction, their power relating and their ideologically-based choosing, people employ

their capacity to reason and in fact reflect in a reasoned manner on their very processes of reasoning. After all, despite not mentioning reason, all of the previous

444  Part 3  Complex responsive processes as a way of thinking about strategy and organisational dynamics

chapters in Part 3 have been exercises in reasoning about human interaction in a

structured and rational manner. Complex responsive processes of reasoning, therefore, remain of fundamental importance no matter how problematic they might be.

What the theory of complex responsive processes seeks to provide is a rigorously-reasoned, unashamedly theoretical but hopefully useful way of thinking about

human processes of thinking which must include human processes of reasoning.

Instead of simply taking rationality for granted, the invitation is to reflect on the

manner in which we are reasoning in any specific situation.

Just as the theory of complex responsive processes is not some kind of justification or prescription for abandoning reason (the head!) in favour of muddling

through or in favour of emotion (the body!), so it is also not a justification or

prescription for abandoning any attempt to measure important aspects of organisational life or to abandon any attempt to forecast anything. Instead, it offers a

way of thinking about the activities of measuring and forecasting by providing a

perspective from which one can ask whether particular measurements and particular attempts to forecast make any sense in a particular situation. For example, take

the widely accepted approach to making investment decisions having long-term

consequences. When we talk to managers about unpredictable long-term futures,

someone will often say that, since managers must make investment decisions with

very long-term consequences, they must be able to predict. And clearly managers do

this. But are the predictions worth anything and are they actually the basis of their

investment decisions?

Prediction and investment decisions

The normal technique for making long-term investment decisions is to undertake a

discounted cash flow analysis. This involves modelling the future by measuring the

costs and the outcomes of the investment in financial terms and forecasting these

variables over a long time period, typically 25 years. It is also usual to specify a

number of different scenarios and to calculate the return on the investment for each

scenario. This is supposed to enable managers to compare the outcomes of different

investment options in different possible situations, so enabling them to choose the

one most likely to produce a desired outcome. Consider what happened at a meeting of top executives Ralph was consulting to. They arrived at a meeting at which

they were going to put forward a recommendation on a particular large investment

proposal which would have consequences for many years to come. As they entered

the room, the financial analysts handed them a piece of paper which listed 12

scenarios, each based on different assumptions about costs, prices and volumes of

product. The rates of return varied across the scenarios from a large negative to a

large positive return. The executives started to question the financial analysts, asking why one rate of return was higher or lower than another. The analysts rapidly

encountered difficulties in giving satisfactory replies, because there were so many

different assumptions in the various scenarios that they could not remember them

all. Tempers were becoming frayed and then the chief executive laughingly intervened and said, ‘Don’t get upset – the one thing we all know for sure is that none

of these scenarios will ever happen!’

What is happening here? A group of very competent and intelligent executives are

going through a procedure in what looks like a highly rational manner, based on what

Chapter 16  Different modes of articulating patterns of interaction emerging across organisations   445

looks like objective data, but in fact they all know that the future is u

­ nknowable.

They are apparently going to make a decision on the basis of i­nformation that they

all agree is completely unreliable. They all agree that they cannot forecast in this

detail over this time period. Further discussion revealed that there had been a number of informal conversations between the directors in small groups of two or three.

They had all already agreed that they would support the investment proposal even

though they had not seen any of the forecasts. On what did they base their agreement? They had agreed that if they did not make the investment they would not be

‘in the game’ in that particular market. They had argued that if they did not make

the investment then a rival would, and this could make the rival more powerful in

the market to the point where that rival might even acquire them. They formed the

judgement that, although they could not know what would happen, it would nevertheless be better to make the investment than not to. This seems to be an entirely

reasonable argument and they thought so too. However, they were not proposing

to discuss the real reasons for the investment in public because they did not sound

rational and objective enough. They needed the cash flow forecasts in order to present a case to the non-executive directors on their board. In other words, the apparently rational analysis was to be used as a rhetorical ploy to persuade others to

accept the judgement of the executive directors and, of course, the non-executives

knew this but also needed to have a rational case so that they could not be blamed

if things went wrong.

The theory of complex responsive processes, therefore, offers managers a way of

thinking about what they are doing. It is not possible to make long-term investment

decisions on the basis of forecasts because the long-term future is unknowable. It is

because of the inherent uncertainty of organisational life that commercial enterprises

have the opportunity to earn a profit. In capitalist, market economies, profit is the

reward for bearing uncertainty. Uncertainty is unique and unknowable compared

with risk, which can be assessed in terms of probability and so insured against.

An organisation bearing risk is rewarded with an insurance premium. An organisation bearing uncertainty is rewarded with profit. To earn a profit, managers must

make judgements and undertake investments whose outcome they cannot know in

advance. In such situations the use of discounted cash flow analyses can only ever be

a rhetorical ploy. Knowing this, managers can at least thoroughly explore the real

reasons they have for making an investment even if they find they have to present the

public case in some other way.

The complex responsive processes perspective, therefore, is a useful one in understanding just when one can forecast, over what time period, and just what measurements make sense for just what purpose in particular situations.

One other point about prediction. While a forecast is a quantitative statement, a

prediction could take a qualitative form. Chapter 14 presented Mead’s explanation

of human consciousness in which a person is conscious because he or she has the

capacity to take the attitude of the other, including the attitude of the generalised

other. In other words, through a life history in a community with a history, each person can predict to some extent how others might respond to his or her next action.

As we interact in ordinary ways with each other every day, we are always expecting

some response, which is a form of predicting. Our action is always future oriented.

At the same time, however, we do not know what the responses will be – we know

that our predictions in ordinary social life are going to be far from perfect. For this

446  Part 3  Complex responsive processes as a way of thinking about strategy and organisational dynamics

reason, effective people remain alert to the differences between their predictions and

the responses they evoke so that they are able to continually adjust their actions. In

other words, alert people are those who are aware of the predictably unpredictable

nature of the responses they are likely to evoke. So just knowing that the future is

not knowable is not a recipe for despair but a realisation that is essential to effective


In the investment decision example given above we referred to the decision technique as a model and the next section looks in more detail at the use of the second-­

order abstractions of models from the complex responsive processes perspective.


Second-order and critical systems thinkers (see Chapter 9) adopt what is essentially

a qualitative modelling approach to their work. The immediate concern of the systems practitioner is with some problem issue or situation about which some group

of people feel that they need to make decisions and take actions in order to bring

about some improvement. The practitioner aims to intervene in this situation in

order to identify how this issue or situation should be formulated, how the decision

should be taken and how it should be implemented. The purpose is to specify some

kind of procedure that the group should follow in order to improve the situation,

recognising that it will probably be impossible to optimise the decision outcome.

Improvement is understood as securing some desired or intended outcomes. The

unquestioned assumption is that problem formulation/analysis, decision making

and implementation are separate activities. They may overlap, they may circle

around many iterations, but conceptually they are separate. The assumption is that

thought is apart from action.

The practitioner operating from the complex responsive processes perspective

does so on the basis that thinking and talking are action. What is of interest is the

conversational process in which a group of people are coming to feel that there is

some kind of issue or situation of concern, even though as yet they do not know

what it is. The perspective is, then, not what people should be doing but what they

actually are doing as the practitioner joins them. Here the practitioner joins a group

of people as a participant in their conversations, seeking to understand something of

the organising themes that are emerging in these conversations.

The systems practitioner prepares for an intervention by gathering data and interviewing those involved or affected by the situation in order to formulate some kind

of view of what is going on. The systems practitioner has various techniques for

doing this, such as preparing a ‘rich picture’ of the situation or summaries of evaluations of the situation made by various participants (see Chapter 9). This information

is prepared as some kind of presentation or feedback to those who will participate

in the intervention and it is the basis on which the practitioner advises on who the

appropriate group of participants should be.

From a complex responsive processes perspective, the practitioner does not join a

group with the intention of structuring or shaping the situation or the conversations

in which an issue is emerging. The practitioner has no intention of creating the right

conditions for better conversations or identifying the right people to be involved in

them. There is no intention to design anything, improve it, or make it right or more

creative. Instead, the intention is the same as that of other participants – namely,

Chapter 16  Different modes of articulating patterns of interaction emerging across organisations   447

to  understand what they are all doing together, what they are talking about and

why. So, for example, Shaw (2002) explains how she asks people how they came

to be involved in the current conversation, because their stories begin to indicate

what they are actually doing in the living present. In participating in this storytelling

she draws attention in certain directions rather than others by emphasising certain

moments rather than others and using certain forms of expression rather than others. In so doing she is drawing attention to how these stories create meaning, changing in emphasis as people go on thinking and speaking about them. People identify

with each other’s stories and so sustain their relationships. This process does not

simply reaffirm existing ideas but enlivens the senses of participants, stirring them

from the habit of attending to experiences in familiar ways to awaken a fresh appreciation of their experience.

For Shaw (2002), there is no intention to prepare for the work to be done at

some later point because in their already conversing, the work is under way in

what she calls ‘gatherings’. Instead of selecting a key group of influencers, formal

or informal, to initiate change, she pays attention to the way in which influence

is spontaneously arising in webs of relationships in particular contexts, reflected

in people gathering together in some way. Gatherings are provoked by the urgent

need to make sense of some dimly perceived issues, making it inevitable that their

conversation will be characterised by a vague sense of why they are there. Instead

of a clear formulation of an enquiry and special invitations to a representative

sample of stakeholders, Shaw seeks ways to connect people so that gatherings will

arise spontaneously because of some interest in common. Such gatherings are not

representative, fair or consultative but, rather, they are active. The point is to work

with the potential for change, finding ways of convening forums that tap people’s

interests, enthusiasms or frustrations and which demand an intensive interaction to

create meaningful forms of activity that ‘move things on’. These discussions have

an ‘everyday quality’ – they are branching, meandering, associative and engaging.

They are similar to the modes people value and recognise in many informal kinds

of conversation. They include formulating and making reference to proposals, analysis and frameworks. They involve speculation, anecdotes and personal revelation.

They are characterised by feeling and bodily sensations that all are resonating and

responded to in different ways. It is a very active, searching, exploratory form of

communication in which the way the future is under perpetual construction is more

than usually evident.

The systems practitioner designs some kind of intervention event such as a

meeting, workshop or learning event in which participants explore the nature of

the issue/situation and possible responses to it. The systems practitioner has a collection of methodologies, methods, tools and techniques to draw upon in designing the intervention events. For example, there are various heuristics, procedures

and models developed by systems thinkers for application to ambiguous problem

situations characterised by power differences and ideological features. The methods and techniques aim to surface multiple evaluations of the situation in what

is a pluralistic approach. All of these methodologies, techniques and so on are

systemic. This means that they focus attention on some whole or system and the

interconnections that produce the system. The implicit assumption is that it is only

by affecting the whole that improvement can be assured. This is because complex

interconnections could overcome attempts at partial improvement. The systems

448  Part 3  Complex responsive processes as a way of thinking about strategy and organisational dynamics

practitioner is seeking to assist people to draw boundaries around the problem

situation, identifying the whole system of which it is an aspect. They recognise

the difficulties of doing this in complex situations and so advocate the drawing

of multiple boundaries and the exploration of ethical and power implications of

doing so. Each model or system identified is recognised as only a partial view of

the whole, one that depends upon the particular paradigm of those drawing the


Systems practitioners think of themselves as facilitators who structure, shape and

guide workshops and other intervention events using the methodologies of systems

thinkers. They keep it rational, to the point and following the agenda. For example,

they present lists of questions to workshop participants asking them to evaluate their

current situation and how they plan to do things differently. They support workshop

participants in looking at where they want to go. Such information may then be used

to design subsequent learning events. They give exercises to participants in learning

events, such as imagining that they have just climbed out of a time capsule five years

into the future.

In relation to the group faced with the problem situation, the stance of the systems

practitioner is one of involvement, in that the work is done with the people involved.

The systems practitioner joins the group but always does so in a particular manner –

namely, as the bringer of systematic sets of conceptual paradigms, a system of

methodologies, a plurality of methods, techniques, heuristics, lists of questions and

models. The systems thinker analyses the situation in order to select appropriate

paradigms and methodologies for the situation in accordance with some kind of

meta-paradigm or meta-methodology. In other words, the systems thinker sets some

kind of agenda.

In the stages leading up to these events, and in the events themselves, then, systems practitioners see themselves as participating with those whom they are advising

in the formulation and exploration of the problem situation. However, in an important sense they are all taking the stance of the objective observer of the situation

simply because they analyse the situation, design the intervention events and select

the appropriate models. The participants also then take this objective position in

applying the models to their situation.

From the complex responsive processes perspective, Shaw argues that meetings

which are carefully orchestrated and over-specified in advance increase the likelihood of people reconstructing the familiar. Outcomes, procedures for working

together, agendas, roles to be taken up by those present, forms of contribution and

prepared presentations, all conspire to reduce the experience of uncertainty as the

experience of acting into the known is engineered. She argues that under-specification

increases the experience of diversity and multiplicity, disturbing routine responses

and increasing the potential for novelty. For Shaw, facilitating means participating

as fully and responsively as possible, voicing one’s opinions, associations and ideas

along with everyone else. In doing this she is sensing the move towards and away

from agreement, of shifts in power difference, the development and collapse of tensions, the variations in engagement, the different qualities of silence, the rhetorical

ploys, the repetition of familiar turns of phrase or image, the glimpsing and losing

of possibility, the ebb and flow of feeling tone, the dance of mutual constraint. She

tries to participate in the conversation in a way that helps to hold open the interplay

of sense-making rather longer than would occur in her absence, to hold open the

Chapter 16  Different modes of articulating patterns of interaction emerging across organisations   449

experience of not knowing. In doing this she is resisting the enormous pressure for


Notice the difference between the systems and complex responsive processes

accounts of practice. The systems practitioner arrives at the situation with a set of

methodologies, models, techniques and so on, to shape the discussion. There is a

design and something of an agenda. From the complex responsive processes perspective the practitioner’s methodology is the ordinary, everyday conversational process

that is already under way – there are no formal models. The practitioner does not

set any agenda at all but seeks to understand the shifting thematic patterning of

the processes of interaction as the basis on which to contribute to it, just as all the

other participants are doing. There is little emphasis on facilitating in the sense of

structuring, summarising, writing bullet points on flipcharts, calling for feedback or

model building. Instead, by responding to what others are saying, by linking themes,

the practitioner is helping to articulate emerging themes and in so doing is influencing the further patterning of the conversation. It is these shifts in communicative

patterning, the widening and deepening of communication, which constitute organisational change.

This means that, unlike the systems practitioner, the practitioner from a complex

responsive processes perspective is not concerned with understanding the organisation as a whole system, but is concerned with the detail of the local interactions

between people, the interplay of their intentions, in the living present; and in this

local interaction, it is of great importance to understand the articulations people give

of the unity of experience in terms of imaginative constructs of ‘whole’, idealised


In systemic practice, those working in the intervention make decisions and take

actions to improve the situation. For the complex responsive processes practitioner,

the action and the work have been going on all the time and in this work decisions

and actions are continually emerging or being blocked.

Systems practitioners are well aware of the highly complex, ill-structured nature

of the situations that groups in organisations face. Their response is pluralism,

which means employing combinations of given paradigms, methodologies, methods

and models. Instead of proposing a single, or even a few consistent hypotheses, they

encourage those they work with to explore many hypotheses, selecting particular

models according to what the culture allows. From the complex responsive processes perspective, one is sceptical of this notion of pluralism – that is, identifying

and selecting different paradigms for evaluation. Instead, the practice is concerned

with what is emerging, and since what is emerging is individual and collective identities, one is sceptical about the possibility of simply switching paradigms as systemic

practice suggests. In the kind of practice described here the focus of attention is on

emerging themes and there is no notion of anyone drawing boundaries around a


The use of qualitative models related to whole organisations focuses attention

at the macro level, the population-wide patterns, in the belief that this can be

affected directly. The complex responsive processes approach focuses attention on

the micro on the basis that population-wide patterns cannot be directly operated

on because they emerge in local interaction. The models can help to articulate the

­population-wide patterns and so provoke conversation but cannot provide a direct

intervention tool.

450  Part 3  Complex responsive processes as a way of thinking about strategy and organisational dynamics

Box 16.1

Facilitation as the exercise of disciplinary power

The following is an example of the phenomena to which Shaw is pointing. In one workshop Chris

attended recently he and other participants spent a long time exhaustively playing games for the first

couple of hours. These games, usually known as ice-breakers, were based on the idea that we all had

to know each other’s names and backgrounds before we could begin to talk, and had to repeat them

back to each other to demonstrate that we had in fact mastered the details. No one was to be left

unrecognised, no one was allowed to stay quiet. In this particular workshop participation played itself

out as obligation to join in, one of the characteristics of a cult value. As we played the games one of the

facilitators praised us for being an ‘obedient’ group, and of course, as the workshop wore on, it became

increasingly difficult to be ‘disobedient’. ‘Disobedience’ was construed as asking questions when it

was not the time to do so, not playing games along with everyone else, or perhaps simply disagreeing

with someone else. It might also manifest itself as appearing not to be having fun. One of the things that

was happening in the playing of games, then, was the establishment of a particular order, a discipline

of meeting in this particular social object.

In situations where conformity is valued, it is not surprising that there is often a big emphasis placed

on rules of engagement, which we have to agree before we can start. On this occasion it involved

agreeing to be ‘constructive’, ‘open’ and ‘honest’ with each other, as though we could know in advance

of acting what would turn out to have been constructive. I wondered to what extent it is possible to be

fully open and honest, particularly in such an intense social gathering, and whether the injunction to be

‘constructive’ also imposed a kind of self-silencing on the participants.

Moreover, it is interesting the way in which the role of the facilitator encouraged dependency from

the group and infantilised them. We were unable to proceed until the facilitator told us it was appropriate to do so, or even to take a break unless the facilitator gave permission, despite the fact that the

timetable clearly delineated break times. On one occasion one of the participants who was presenting

finished on time but was uncertain whether just to announce a break. She ‘handed over’ to the facilitator, who in turn ‘handed over’ to the allotted time keeper, who agreed that it was indeed time to take

a break. We needed two facilitators to tell us it was time for tea. Taking responsibility began to feel like

an irresponsible act.

However, the tight constraints provoked disobedience in some. As an example, one participant in

the workshop tried to ask a question during a particularly long and uninformative PowerPoint presentation, but was prevented from doing so by the facilitator, since it was not the right time to ask questions.

The questioner persisted, asked their question, and immediately following this the facilitator intervened

rapidly to get everyone up on their feet to play another game – we needed another facilitative moment

to re-establish order. Despite the appeal to the idea that we were having fun, and were participating

‘democratically’ together, there was little doubt that some forms of participation were more valued than

others. Discomfort was to be avoided at all costs.

Additionally, in this highly organised workshop there was a pronounced anxiety about time, about

achieving ‘outputs’ and about ‘capturing the learning’. The deliberate techniques to achieve all three

can sometimes drive out all spontaneity and substitute mechanism for meaningful exchange.

Concerning time, for example, the orchestrated activities were often very prolonged. The longer the

activities took the greater the anxiety about time became, and what usually suffered as a result was the

opportunity to discuss what had just been said. Many of the slots which were dedicated to discussion

then had to be cut because we got so behind with the timetable. What became most important was

sticking to the timetable, rushing on to the end, rather than sometimes diverting to discuss what had

arisen, which could have been very important.

Small group discussions are often very disruptive of serious engagement, particularly if facilitators

encourage techniques such as World Café, where group members are expected to change every ten

minutes. In this workshop, no sooner had a discussion begun than it was time to move and disrupt. When

small groups had finished their discussion after often short duration then each of the groups were expected

Chapter 16  Different modes of articulating patterns of interaction emerging across organisations   451

to ‘feedback’ to everyone else what they had been talking about. ‘Feedback’, on grounds of inclusivity, was

deliberate and exhaustive, and notes were written about notes in order not to ‘lose’ any insight.

As one of the exercises, small groups were sent away with highly idealised questions, such as ‘what

would your ideal organisation look like?’, or ‘how should we organise ourselves in the future so that we

can maximise our efficiency and outputs’? Unsurprisingly this generated lists of ‘shoulds’ which were

also of a highly idealised kind, which, when aggregated, began to look as there was a high degree of

consensus in the group about what we all ‘should’ be doing. This in turn led to action planning about

how these ‘shoulds’ might be realised, which involved changing our ‘culture’ and ourselves. This was

abstract and idealised, as well as compelling and uplifting, both at the same time. Perhaps it was

uplifting because it was so abstract and idealised – we were imagining a whole which would never be


Workshops such as this one, in my recent experience, have tended towards conformity and obedience, have organised away opportunities for spontaneity, and have provoked the very acts of rebellion

that they were designed to render unnecessary.

Quantitative modelling

In a very general sense, the previous chapters of this part have outlined a model. This

is a model of local interaction between members of a group of people in which they

form desires and intentions concerning their own local interactions and concerning

the generalisations and idealisations of the population-wide patterns that emerge in

their local interactions. This is their experience, and they often talk and feel about

this experience in terms of a unity expressed as an imaginatively constructed ‘whole’

directed to the future, although they may usually not be all that aware of the imaginatively constructed nature of this unity of experience. Any theory can be thought of as

a model in this kind of way. However, the term ‘model’ is also used in a much more

restricted sense as an analytical, often mathematical, construct of a system, sometimes

incorporating empirical measurements of some kind. Such models are sometimes used

by managers and policymakers as aids to decision making. How would one understand such models and their use from a complex responsive processes perspective?

The formal mathematical modeller usually makes a distinction between a group

of decision makers, the problem situation that they are facing, and the alternative

strategies they might deploy to deal with the problem situation, just as the qualitative

modellers described in the last section do. The decision makers tend to be thought

of as acting within or upon the situation and in order to assist them to make an

­appropriate decision, the modeller constructs a model of the situation to enable them

to explore the possible consequences of alternative decisions they could take in order

to better achieve their objectives. They are conversing in ways patterned by activities

of second-order abstracting.

The model, therefore, focuses on the situation and the alternative ways of

dealing with it, while the group of decision makers slip unnoticed into the background. It is implicitly assumed that the individual decision makers act according

to rationalist causality (see Chapter 3), rather than the assumption made in the

theory of complex responsive process of transformative causality in human action.

Abstracting from the experience of the decision makers themselves, as happens in

the use of the model, is perfectly understandable because a formal mathematical

model could not capture the micro-detail of the conversational, ideological and

452  Part 3  Complex responsive processes as a way of thinking about strategy and organisational dynamics

power-relating interactions between people that the theory of complex responsive

processes focuses on. The first point to notice, then, is how formal mathematical

modelling necessarily abstracts from direct human experience and constructs a set

of formal, abstract relationships relating to the whole situation. The situation is

normally understood as a system at the macro level, and traditional systems models average away any micro-diversity and so implicitly assume formative causality

(see Chapter 3) in which the system model unfolds the hypothesis of the modeller.

Second-order systems thinkers referred to in the last section do recognise that the

decision makers are not separate from the situation and so the model of the situation is widened to incorporate the decision makers themselves. However, they are

then observing themselves observing the situation and we get into infinite regress.

There are two problems with a great many formal mathematical models. First, by

modelling at a macro level, they average away diversity and, second, they separate

decision makers and situation.

From a complex responsive processes perspective, the situation is not a given

that can be modelled apart from the decision makers, although temporarily thinking this might be instructive. Instead, the situation is the history of the decision

makers and their processes. This history has produced particular configurations of

resources (e.g. a particular configuration of transport facilities) and particular patterns of habits that we call ‘culture’ or ‘social structure’. In the living present, as a

group of decision makers are acting, their actions are simultaneously enabled and

constrained by these resource configurations and cultural patterns. In their acting

they are continually re-enacting, but in subtly different ways, the configurations and

patterns and so potentially transforming them. In this way there is no split causality, because both the situation and the decision makers are thought of according to

transformative causality. The situation is part of the decision makers and vice versa.

The decision makers are co-creating or enacting the situation. They may or they may

not construct and use models but, if they do, the models are tools and the important

point is just how those tools are employed in the complex responsive processes of

making decisions.

A few system models (see the section on Allen’s work in Chapter 11) do partially take account of human diversity and so produce models based on a form of

transformative causality (see Chapter 12). However, there is still the split causality of rationalist decision makers in the background and the transformative causality of the model itself. Furthermore, since it reflects transformative causality,

this kind of model now evolves unpredictably – it takes on a life of its own. Since

the model cannot capture all of the details of the situation, it and the situation it

is modelling will evolve in completely different ways. The model’s micro-diversity

could amplify in one way, while the situation’s micro-diversity could amplify in

different ways. It follows that the decision makers could not use their models in

the rational calculating manner that might have been hoped for in the traditional


However, they could learn a lot about the dynamics of the situation, about the

uncertainty and unpredictability of it, even though they could not directly calculate decisions from it. This immediately undermines the rational causality being

assumed about the decision makers. It is then possible to argue that the ­decision

makers making the decisions also need to be understood in terms of transformative

causality because they are an integral part of the situation. This is what the theory

Chapter 16  Different modes of articulating patterns of interaction emerging across organisations   453

of complex responsive processes seeks to do. From this perspective, models are

understood as tools, amongst other tools, used in the communicative processes of

decision making.

How might people be using these tools? Decision makers are confronted by

many possible futures and so seek to develop some idea of the possible consequences of the actions they choose. A macro-model of the situation, particularly

one incorporating some degree of diversity, provides a tool for exploring possible

consequences in terms of generalisations. In complex responsive processes terms

one can think of these as models of social objects, including idealisations thereof.

Any problem situation needs to be understood in terms of its wider social contexts – in terms of the generalisations of social objects and cult values, including

technology and resources. A model of relationships between such generalisations

could give useful insights even though it can never capture how the actual particularisations of these generalisations will be made. For example, Chapter 11

described Allen’s model of police targeting suspects and the unintended consequences this can have. This insight could lead to very different conversations

about targets.

16.7  Summary

To summarise, organisations exist to enable joint action and people can only act

jointly through their relationships with each other. People relate to each other

through complex responsive processes that can be understood in terms of interacting propositional and narrative themes. The themes take many forms. They may be

ideological themes. They may take the form of intentions, expressions of emotion,

descriptions and so on. Simultaneous interaction between many themes taking different forms constitutes the conversational life of an organisation and the strategic

narratives that emerge from them. The process of relating through conversation

constrains that relating and so establishes power relations. Conversation and power

relations are simply different words for the same phenomenon: namely, that of relating between people. An organisation is processes of relating where relating is the

conversational life of organisational members in which they form patterns of power

relations and make ideologically-based choices. Conversational life cannot develop

according to an overall blueprint since no one has the power to determine what

others will talk about all the time. Conversation is thus local interaction, which

includes the use of maps and models as tools, continuously producing emergent

population-wide patterns as strategy narratives.

Further reading

Ideas in this chapter are further developed by Fonseca (2001), Streatfield (2001). Further

developments can be found in Stacey and Griffin (2005), Griffin and Stacey (2005), Stacey

(2005), Stacey and Griffin (2006), Shaw and Stacey (2006), Stacey and Griffin (2008), and

Mowles, Stacey and Griffin (2008), Stacey (2012) and Mowles (2015).

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